A little while back, I was talking about how few shows capture the feel of real life and community as well as the UK sitcom Gavin & Stacey does. That show moves to its own sweet, amiable rhythms, and it doesn't feel like it needs to create forced melodrama or over-the-top situations to generate drama. As I thought about the review, though, I realized that I was sort of wrong that an American show would have trouble capturing this sort of feel. I wouldn't say that Modern Family has quite accomplished this, since it's less about forming new communities and more about reinforcing old ones, but it's certainly a show that's low on incident and very much about finding the humor in everyday life.
And then there's Cougar Town, which has gone - and I mean this as the highest praise possible - from a show about a woman heading back out into the dating scene in her 40s and having sex with 20somethings to something like an American version of Gavin & Stacey, a show about how the best communities are the ones you build around yourself and about how there are few things funnier than the things you do just to pass time with your friends. In this candid interview with Alan Sepinwall, co-creator Bill Lawrence talks about how the show went from its crass, high concept premise (which was, let's not forget, a premise that garnered the show a huge premiere audience) to a low concept show about just doing stupid stuff with your pals. In it, he talks about how the show's title has become an impediment to people who might like it sampling the show (and, yeah, we've made fun of the title here). Lawrence hopes he and ABC can agree to change the title, but I doubt that will happen. So consider this your official notice: Cougar Town has quietly become one of TV's best comedies, and we're going to be covering it next season. Because it's awesome.
The characters on Cougar Town have all grown in the show's first season. They're all believably flawed. But they're all also somehow innately lovable. This seems to be a specialty of Lawrence's work, stretching back to Spin City (which wasn't my favorite show ever but definitely had a great roster of characters), and he and fellow creator Kevin Biegel have gone out of their way to make the show as funny as, say, Scrubs while toning down that show's flights of fancy. If Scrubs is a show about the limitless possibilities of starting out in your life and career, Cougar Town is more in touch with the rhythms of how life starts to feel when you begin to have to slow down. I'm not the first person to make this comparison, but when the couple with unresolved sexual tension on Scrubs hooks up in season one, it's a one-episode fling because they both know they're not ready (or right) for this. When that couple hooks up on this show, they give it a shot, because how many more shots at happiness are they going to get?
Cougar Town hasn't been perfect in its first season (or, more accurately, it hasn't been perfect in the 15 or so episodes since the show made the change from being a show about middle-aged women having sex to a show about friends just living their lives). There have been moments when it's seemed like some of the actors - all of whom have a tendency toward being a little broad, outside of Dan Byrd - were all starring in completely different shows. There are jokes that are hilarious in the moment but make a little less sense within the show's less fanciful reality as you think about them (for example: Jules getting Ellie to make a dance remix of Grayson's "couples" speech in tonight's episode, which is very funny but also kind of implausible, given the circumstances). There have been a few too many episodes where someone tells a stupid lie to someone else for largely unbelievable reasons (one of my TV pet peeves). And there can be moments when the show forces the sentimentality a little bit, even when it can usually get away with such things. (Lawrence and Biegel have never met a sleepy-sounding singer-songwriter they couldn't score a poignant montage to.)
But there are shows you respect more than love and shows you love more than respect. There are lots of things I really respect about Cougar Town, from its willingness to completely evolve when it was obvious the original premise wouldn't work in perpetuity to the way it uses its ensemble of actors to the way it gives Busy Phillips a place on the TV schedule to perform her special brand of bugnutsity. But when it comes right down to it, Cougar Town is a show I love, wholeheartedly much of the time, and that means I'm willing to forgive minor missteps if it means getting to spend more time on the beach with this cast, just watching them do what they do.
There's a montage in tonight's episode that made me want to roll my eyes at first. The characters are all going to the beach as part of an elaborate scheme Grayson and Jules have cooked up to tell Bobby that they're a couple now and he's the last single one in the group. It's already kind of a sitcommy setup, and once I saw the characters on bikes, pedaling away, I was ready to write this off as another trip into schmaltz-ville. But a curious thing happens as the sequence proceeds: It becomes almost a gentle parting note for the audience. There's a sense that these people are our friends, people we've been hanging out with, and even though we're going away for the summer, they'll be right back there in the fall, ready for us to go down to the beach and bury Bobby up to his head in the sand again.
Creating shows where you fall in love with the characters and the world is harder than it looks, and I can see why Lawrence's work has rubbed some people wrong in the past. The guy doesn't have a completely ironic bone in his body, nor does Biegel. The two can do crass. They can do irony. But what they feel most comfortable with is a show that gives off the vibe of just spending time on a lazy summer afternoon, drinking beer with your friends and flipping pennies into cans. It helps that their cast is so full of people who are just willing to be as goofy and endearing as possible and a star as willing to cede over so many of the best jokes to her peers as Courtney Cox has been. (Though Cox gets lots of great jokes, she's often the Mary Richards-esque den mother of the group, and that's a character type that's been sorely missed on TV.)
I wouldn't say Cougar Town has had the biggest improvement of the season; I'd still likely give that to Parks and Recreation. But it probably had the most unexpected one. Where Parks and Recreation had all of the elements in place and just had to sharpen them, Cougar Town had to take a bunch of stuff that wasn't really working together and turn it into a coherent, consistent world and piece of television. Those first episodes of the show have their moments, but what has made what came after that much better is the fact that the show figured out what it was about. This is a show about growing up, how it doesn't stop after you turn 18 or 21, how it's ongoing, really. There are always things to do and things to learn and people to get to know, and sometimes, they're just down the street.
Finale grade: A-
Season grade: B+
- I'm hoping the dance remix turns up online for download.
- This episode would have still gotten a B if it were only Busy Phillips pulling back her mask to reveal her crazy face underneath. Her showing just the mouth was amazing.
- "It's the same rule that I have for hair extensions or foster parents."
- "New dad, you give me twenty bucks, I'll never call you New Dad again. … I love you, New Dad."
- "Sometimes, I just like to say your name out loud." "Me too! But I whisper it. Bobby."
- "His new favorite beach activity is being buried in the sand because he likes imagining he's just a head."
- "He wants to make love to an Ewok!"
- "This is not where we hang out now."